FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2017, file photo, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Building is shown in Washington. Democratic lawmakers are joining scientists in denouncing an industry-backed proposal to dramatically limit what kind of science the Environmental Protection Agency can consider. Industry backers say the rule would increase regulatory transparency. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

EPA proposal to limit science studies draws opposition

July 17, 2018 - 12:03 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic lawmakers joined scores of scientists, health and environmental officials and environmental activists Tuesday in denouncing an industry-backed proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency that could limit dramatically what kind of science the agency considers in making regulations.

A public hearing at EPA headquarters on the rule, introduced by then-administrator Scott Pruitt before his resignation this month amid ethics scandals, drew opponents and a much smaller number of industry and trade groups backing it.

If adopted by the EPA and the Trump administration, the rule would allow an EPA administrator to reject study results in making decisions about pollutants and other health risks if the underlying research data is not made public because of patient privacy concerns. That move "enables the public to more meaningfully comment on the science" behind environmental regulation, said Joseph Stanko, a representative of a coalition of industry trade groups and companies affected by what the group says is increasingly stringent air-pollution regulation.

Opponents said the move would throw out the kind of public-health studies that underlie enforcement of the Clean Air Act and other landmark environmental controls because the studies drew on confidential health data from thousands of individuals.

"This has nothing to do with transparency," Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko of New York said at the hearing in EPA headquarters. "It's a thinly veiled campaign to limit research ... that supports critical regulatory action."

The "proposal and its false claims about transparency ... guarantees that political interests will always matter more than science" in forming environmental regulations, Tonko said.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, said the EPA proposal was similar to years of "transparency" legislation for EPA that Congress had repeatedly rejected, and called it "an administrative attempt to circumvent the legislative process."

New York state officials and representatives of public and private universities also spoke against the proposal.

Critics that include former EPA administrators and scientists said the policy shift is designed to restrict the agency from citing peer-reviewed public-health studies that use patient medical records that must be kept confidential under patient privacy laws.  

Such studies include the Harvard School of Public Health's landmark Six Cities study of 1993, which established links between death rates and dirty air in major U.S. cities. That study was used by EPA to justify tighter air-quality rules opposed by industrial polluters.

While Pruitt introduced the proposal, the EPA is continuing the steps toward its formal adoption under the new acting administrator, former Pruitt EPA deputy Andrew Wheeler.

In an email, EPA spokesman James Hewitt indicated Tuesday that Wheeler wanted to balance transparency and privacy concerns, something Pruitt also spoke about regarding the proposal.

"Acting Administrator Wheeler believes the more information you put out to the public the better the regulatory outcome. He also believes the agency should prioritize ways to safeguard sensitive information," Hewitt said.

The proposal is open for public comment through mid-August before any final EPA and White House review.